Narrowboats are un-spectacular.
On a sailing boat you use the power of the wind and feel the movement of the racy body through the waves. On a motorboat you would enjoy a high speed and great flexibility. A big cruiser would bring you to fantastic locations and contain a pool.
A narrowboat is non of these. You would move with a walking speed of 3-4mph through endless, but narrow canals. All you see is a flat country, and backyards from factories and big houses in a city.
So how can there be any magic in driving such a big pot?
Let me introduce you a little bit to the reality of a 52 ft narrowboat to answer this question.
So first, after all, it is still a boat.
It swims on the water.
And it has a quite impressive tonnage. With 20 tons over 52 feet length, you don’t want to hit the concrete of the bank, another boat, or the huge gate of a lock – even in slow motion. The impact would go through all your body and make you wish you would have better taken care.
Second, there is always an admirable vintage engine on board. Our BMC engine for instance had been running probably since 40 years. And it will run for another 10 years minimum, or maybe much more.
When you start this monster, you hear his deep voice below you and see a big cloud of white and blue smoke behind you. Show me a man that wouldn’t get big wet eyes when you open the hatch to the engine room.
Third, it teaches you the power of small movements. You move the throttle, and slowly the boat comes to motion, moving the bow into the middle of the canal.
You don’t want to go more than walking speed. The boat could probably make 6-7mph when you give all, but then you jumble other boats, destroy nests of wild birds and you endanger your engine. After a few months you will discover that the perfect speed for a boat is 3-4 mph, walking speed.
You can have a chat with pedestrians beside you on the towpath. You can see every detail on the canal and the surroundings. You have time to choose the perfect lead.
You approach a lock. Instead of going fast until the last moment and then killing your engine while switching into full reverse, you gently take away speed long before. You switch from forward gear into neutral 10 meters before the touchpoint. You make small, minimalistic movements with the tiller, so the boat comes nearly parallel to the bank. A little sigh of the engine when you go briefly into reverse to stop the move, and 2 seconds later a little bump when the boat tenderly touches the bank. That’s it.
And fourth, it guides you slowly into a widened consciousness.
Imagine you are driving slowly along the canal, always with the same speed.
The engine sounds deep and satisfied. The monotony makes you sleepy.
But you are still highly alert. You don’t want to hit a boat or a weir that could appear any moment behind the next curve.
With this mix of monotony and alertness, you enter a state of meditation.
I call it the boating-state.
Enough magic to try it?